Hanscom major accomplishes goals, honors fallen troops through running

  • Published
  • By Meredith March
  • 66th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
The Air Force core values encourage Airmen to wear many hats: fit to fight and mentally healthy professional, supportive Wingman and committed family member. During a 2007 deployment, Maj. (Dr.) Derek Speten, 66th Medical Group Diagnostics and Therapeutics flight commander, discovered something that enhanced his efforts in all facets of his life: running.

While he enjoyed an active lifestyle and realized the importance of meeting the physical demands of rescuing and treating patients in his deployed location, running and endurance races were possibly the furthest subject from Major Speten's mind on Valentine's Day in 2007, when three victims of an IED explosion were rushed into the hospital where he worked.

The major's patient, while severely burned, initially appeared to be in better condition than his two friends - one of whom arrived with a tourniquet on each leg. However, as Major Speten commenced his examination, it was quickly apparent that his internal injuries were grave. After Major Speten had made the man as comfortable as possible, he sat with him for a moment in the critical care unit, where another of the victims was recovering.

The servicemember who had arrived in the trauma bay with tourniquets on his legs told the major that the burned man, who was the one who had applied the tourniquets while they waited for help, had been an avid runner who dreamed of running the Boston Marathon. Two hours later, the major's patient died.

"I thought some of his dreams died as well," Major Speten said.

As he thought about this servicemember and his friends throughout the rest of his deployment, Major Speten began reprioritizing some of his own goals.

"When I came back, I wanted to start running for anyone who had had that desire and no longer had the opportunity to do it," Major Speten said.

Realizing he didn't necessarily want to sacrifice precious time with his family to pursue his desire to run, Major Speten and his wife bought a jogging stroller so he could take their children, ages 7 and 4, with him while he trained.

"That was really difficult because when you're not conditioned to run with a stroller, not only are you slow, but your heart rate goes up faster. It's definitely more challenging." Major Speten said. "Most people think I'm crazy for pushing a 100 pound stroller, but it allowed me to spend time with my children, which I had missed during my deployment."

Major Speten ran his first marathon in December 2008. Beyond the physical accomplishment of finishing the race was the healing he felt by allowing himself, uninterrupted, to reflect on his deployment and think of those who couldn't be there with him.

"When I wondered if I could finish, I had my jersey that said, 'In honor of all our fallen Soldiers,' so I couldn't quit," Major Speten said.

"While I ran, it was like a three-hour personal therapy. I felt free and I thought about accomplishing something, not just for myself, but for others that couldn't be there that day. Toward the end, when my body started to shut down, I would think of those people that I was running for. It was challenging physically, but mentally, you have to have a strategy for when your body wants to quit. I kept thinking, 'I can do this,' because what I was asking of my body was nothing compared to the heroic acts those servicemembers had performed to save each other before they got to that trauma bay."

Over the course of the next year, Major Speten completed six additional marathons, among other races, and qualified for the Boston Marathon, which he ran alongside another Airman from Hanscom who was running his first marathon.

Finishing that race was an incredible personal accomplishment for a number reasons, Major Speten said.

"Not only had I accomplished something for someone that I had set in motion years ago, but suddenly I was also able to help support another Airman and friend."

Major Speten subsequently mailed his Boston Marathon jersey, T-shirt and medal to the parents of the servicemember who had inspired him to run it.

"He accomplished this through me. I've learned from these experiences not to drop your dreams, and if someone else can't accomplish theirs, you can accomplish them in their place."

While he's achieved his Boston Marathon goal, Major Speten continues to race competitively. He and his brother, Shane, participated in an Ironman 70.3 event in New Found Lake, N.H., on June 6. He also recently ran alongside his wife during her first marathon and his training and competitions often include pushing his children in the jog stroller. Involving his family has made the experience not only possible, but more enjoyable, Major Speten said.

"When you deploy, you really wish you had spent more time with your family," he said. "You will always have personal goals you want to accomplish, but involving your family and receiving their support is what keeps you going."